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Infinite dimensions
Iran was a tiny place outside Iran

Shirin Shahrokni
October 17, 2004

My family and I had to leave Iran when I was only four. At that time, Mani - my older brother - and I both intuitively knew that this sudden departure towards an unknown destination was caused by frightening and obscure matters. It followed overwhelming events, belonging to a world that was standing well above us and that grown-up people solely could understand.

And so, we were going on a journey in "the outside world", for a long and indeterminate time. The journey will be filled with all kinds of discoveries and adventures, would my parents' relieving words suggest, and we would come back home, one day... "Home", emotionally speaking, had thus been defined in my four-year-old heart and mind as Iran, and this emotional tie probably even strengthened due to the unforgettably painful circumstances in which we left the country.

During the first several years spent in the "outside world", my emotional bond towards Iran quickly merged with the one I had towards my family. To me, Iran was no longer a country; in a way, it was simply a warm and affectionate unit where my parents, Mani, and I had never ceased to speak our Dezfouli southern dialect, where we weekly ate our home-made Chelo-Kabab, and where we listened to the Beatles, Joan Baez, and, most often, to exquisite pieces of Iranian traditional music.

Iran had become a tiny place in the heart of Paris where my parents' friends would regularly come and where, together, they would spend hours talking passionately about Iranian society and politics, and evoke their lives in the homeland, with nostalgia in their eyes and voices.

As years went by and as our initial intention to go back to Iran was getting more and more uncertain, my parents' network of Iranian friends expanded. They all turned out to be middle-class intellectuals who, like them, were strongly attached to their past and to their beloved Iran. They manifested this astonishing mixture of latent melancholy and yet, enthusiasm and joy towards the simplest beauties of life.

One such beauty was undeniably the periodic, warm get-togethers that each family used to organize, in which we ate and danced abundantly, in which they chatted till dawn, told each other typical Persian jokes, and above all, revived their past. Gradually, these men and women, including my own parents, came to incarnate in my mind the perfect image of a "real Iranian".

In my protective environment, I had learned to view every fellow Iranian as a potential friend, as someone I would feel a unique connection with, and the occasional Iranian get-togethers - which mostly coincided with national celebrations, such as Eyd- were often blissful moments of evasion.

I still remember the day Mani and I went to a Char Shanbeh Soori celebration as one of the most beautiful days of my life. Was it my anticipatory emotions or the peculiarities of that special cultural event that made it so dreamlike to me, it is hard to tell. Was it because it somehow reminded me of the last party we made in Iran, where my father, who was dancing with utter abandon on the table, looked like the happiest man on Earth? Or was it merely because I was in perfect harmony with the rest of the crowd, and could feel life in every single feature of this huge get-together?

In fact, this Char Shanbeh Soori celebration was quite a good picture of the emotional bond I had developed towards "my Iran": it was comforting and inspiring in infinite ways. For one thing, this bond provided me with a sense of belonging and in that sense, it fed my fragile self-esteem. It made my days denser and more joyful. It also linked my past to my present - although in a rather narrow fashion - and in so doing, helped me in my silent attempt to find meaningful marks and construct my identity.

Although far from feeling alien to the French society I was daily engaging in, I would identify myself as an Iranian, and feel delighted and relieved when my entourage - classmates, close friends, and teachers alike - knew about Iran or was simply enthusiastic to know more about it. On the other hand, I always got terribly angry at those who would throw back to me that Iranian, Iraqi, Algerian - and so forth - "meant" just one and the same thing. People's ignorance or indifference - or both - translated into an offence to my family and, equally so, to my own identity.

The day my friends and I went to see the movie "Not Without My Daughter" clearly exemplifies this. While, outraged, I was trying hard to prove my friends that this movie carried ludicrous lies about the Iranian people and their culture, most of them severely urged me to face reality and accept those sad things about my country.

As I was growing up and entering my teen years, new desires and challenges seeped through my life. If anything, I was greedy to discover the world and know more about human rights and social justice. In those years, I also fell in love and experienced my strongest friendships. Each of these relationships opened my eyes on new realities, thoughts and emotions, and showed me that the "outside world" too could be not only real fun, but also tremendously stimulating, profound, and attaching.

Moreover, many intellectually stimulating debates, such as racial discrimination in the suburbs of Paris, started to capture my attention and point to the concrete ways through which certain issues could impact my life on a day-to-day basis.

Along these progressive changes, I had the strange impression that my life was standing between two juxtaposed identities, connected in complex ways that I only could perceive. One of them, which I wouldn't be able to find a distinct name for, displayed a thirst for independence. It was pragmatic and easily changing and could adapt to a great many different circumstances.

Although somewhat hidden and sometimes voiceless, the other part of me had infiltrated all my senses; it would embellish what I saw, deepen my human experiences, yet, it would also complicate any choice making process I would undertake and often take me to endless reflections where my friends would, with much less difficulty, find their way. Notwithstanding its importance, this other part of me, this Iranianess, had been fragilized by new realities.

Indeed, within my teen years, I began to frequently feel frustrated during our Iranian get-togethers due to my inability to engage in most of the main debates. I barely knew about the complexities of the Iranian society, its history, and the causes and consequences of its revolution.

Additionally, I had never found my Iranian friends. For one thing, there were extremely few in my daily environment and the handful I knew were either too "French" or too "Iranian". The former seldom wanted to converse in Farsi with me and oddly enough, I somewhat had the impression that they were not even tempted to make friends with other fellow Iranians. The latter, on the other hand, would sometimes use words and expressions I had never heard before, would continuously evoke places, persons, and issues which were solely confined to Iran, hence simply unknown to me... All this contributed to making me feel like a stranger amongst those I had always called my people.

I was seventeen when my recent identity crisis got suddenly suspended. In any case, family issues always weighed more in my life than my internal conflicts and personal questionings, and this time more than ever before in our fourteen years spent "abroad". It was high time for us, argued my father, that we experience a radical life change. We were going to move far away again and settle in a place where our futures would never be threatened by hostile institutions and discriminatory rules.

We would land in a country where no one will look down upon us and treat us like "kharejis". If anything, my brothers and I will enjoy more secured life-chances overseas, in Canada. In Canada, we were told, the Iranian community had greatly expanded over the past years and it had now turned into a strong and united ethnic group in which we could find our marks and feel understood. Thus, in less than a few months, I said good-bye to France, good-bye to my dearest friends, and we headed for Canada.

It's been eight years now that I've lived in the gorgeous city of Montreal. Although my intuition tells me I will not stay here for the rest of my life, this city will undoubtedly retain a central place in my heart for it has soothed many of my sorrows and gave me refreshing instants when I most needed it.

The vivid contrasts in its architecture, ranging from the very modern skyscrapers reminding you of New York's financial district, to the picturesque streets of Old-Montreal, conquered me at once. These contrasts provided the city with a unique and timeless character, as if nothing ever died in it. It indeed seemed that Montreal had espoused different cultures across different historical times, without ever electing just one of them. In fact, it incarnated and celebrated all of them at the same time.

Montreal carried multiple identities vibrating at once, which enriched its social tissue, made it a cultural place, and above all, awoke one's senses. While endlessly wandering its streets, I have often perceived the latent cultural chaos residing in them as a reflection of the one I myself have carried along all these years.

In any case, apart from this love story of mine towards Montreal, I have learned in the past years that traveling does open one's eyes. Within months after our arrival in Canada, the innocent monolithic image I had preserved of "the real Iranian" brutally faded away.

It is quite easy to deduce from the notes of my diary how my initial encounters with Iranians in Toronto confused me much. I wrote about the superficial manners of those I observed in typical "mehmoonis", their fake American accent when they all spoke Farsi way better than I did, or about Iranian women's excessive make-up. In fact, such severe judgmental remarks partly stemmed from the fact that I, again, was feeling like a stranger amongst them.

Upon arrival, I also quickly realized that most Iranians having immigrated in Toronto had a different historical background and most importantly, expressed different political views from my parents' and most of their friends' in Paris.

At any rate, there no longer was such thing as one "real Iranian" in my mind... It was as much a diversified group as one can imagine and the "powerful united Iranian community" my brothers and I had heard of was clearly inexistent. Initially, these changes I found very disturbing and hard to stand; in Montreal, we were a rather isolated family and I often missed the refreshing get-togethers we used to organize in Paris.

Over time, things slowly evolved. I still firmly believe that nourishing the various facets of my identity represents one sure step towards becoming the happy, fulfilled woman I have always wished to be. I also firmly believe that keeping this "Iranianness" alive deep-down as well as in my daily interactions constitute a vital part towards achieving this end. Yet, it is precisely this Iranianness of mine that has come to take other forms and other meanings.

Although a creative Iranian community-event has still the magical power to transform a tiny movie-theater or a mere picnic area into a homelike place, I have stopped "seeking Iran" solely within my environment. Over time, I have indeed sought a more "one-to-one" relationship towards my personified Iran, one in which I could get to know her immortal personages, and not solely hear about them.

And so, on a night of solitude, I discovered the authentic, brave, intelligent, and sensual words of Forough. I would read the same poem's translation times and times again to make sure I had fully captured every single sign of lust, despair, rebellion, and love in it. Gradually, I explored with awe a small portion of Shamloo's poetry and through books and the precious help of my cousin Ali, a fervent addict of Iranian poetry, I gathered as much information as possible about him, his life, and his sublime accomplishments.

Also, unlike my older brother who, with much self-discipline and passion, had been learning substantially about Iranian history since his early childhood, I have read my first historical books, reports, and articles in the past five years. This has allowed me to understand some of the complexities of Iran's today's society, and in doing so, this has helped me construct personal opinions on certain issues and take part in some of the debates I used to unquestionably be excluded from.

Ultimately, my initial immersion into the infinite dimensions of Iranian poetry, its literature and its history has provided me with exemplary models of Iranian women and men of the past and of our times who have fought for love, individual freedom and integrity, as well as for other universal human rights in their country.

Going to Iran becomes your ultimate desire once a "one-to-one relationship" has begun. You don't want to idealize her, nor do you intend to exaggerate her weaknesses and strengths. You want to see her through your own eyes, and not through those of the nationalists, the cynical, the disenchanted, or the idealists.

Talking, reading, and learning from those who live in Iran, or have once done so, still keeps you captivated, yet it no longer satisfies your senses. You want to feel the ordinary pace of Tehran and contemplate, in the streets of Iran, the works of time and history. Will you be an alien towards all features of the Iranian society? Will you feel, more than ever, lonely and excluded? In any case, you are ready to take up that risky experience.

Aside from these personal wants, I also hoped my parents' silent longing would slightly pale through my going to Iran. Somehow, I thought, they would travel through my journey, and see a bit of Iran, with the help of hundreds of pictures, videotaping, and oral accounts.

And so, I underwent all the usual "rituals" that most of us going back to Iran after ages do. There were the terribly time-consuming, ridiculous, annoying ones such as getting your Iranian passport for the first time, justifying the embassy people why you have been abroad for so long without ever returning, and waiting, waiting, waiting for their damn response...

I relentlessly endured all these harsh parts of the rituals to eventually go through the sweet and moving ones, like purchasing tons of "Made-in-Canada" presents to all the dear ones awaiting Mani and me in Tehran, picking up friends' packs that we had to deliver to their relatives in Iran, and so on. And now excited, moved, and anxious, now surprisingly quiet, patient, and confident, I waited until that very special evening, when, with my oldest friend, Mani, I flied back to the "real Iran".

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